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Heaven's Gate is a 1980 western movie based on the Johnson County War, a dispute between land barons and European immigrants in Wyomingmarker in the 1890s. The film's production was plagued by cost and time overruns, negative press, and rumors about director Michael Cimino's allegedly overbearing directorial style. It is generally considered one of the biggest box office bombs of all-time. It opened to poor reviews and earned less than $3 million domestically (from an estimated budget of $42 million), eventually contributing to the collapse of its studio, United Artists, and effectively destroying the reputation of Cimino, previously one of the ascendant directors of Hollywood owing to his celebrated 1978 movie The Deer Hunter, which had won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1979.

Cimino had an expansive and ambitious vision for the film and pushed the film far over its planned budget. The movie's financial problems and United Artists' subsequent demise led to a move away from director-driven film production in the American film industry and a shift toward greater studio control of films.

The film's actors included Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Masur, Terry O'Quinn, Mickey Rourke, and Willem Dafoe in his first film role.


The film opens in 1870 as two young men, Jim Averill (Kristofferson) and William C. "Billy" Irvine (Hurt), are graduating from Harvard Universitymarker. The Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten, in his penultimate film role) speaks to the graduates on the association of "the cultivated mind with the uncultivated," and the importance of "the education of a nation." Irvine, brilliant but obviously intoxicated, follows this with his opposing, irreverent views. A celebration is then held after which the male students serenade the women who are present.

The film then flashes forward 20 years, where Averill is now the sheriff in the booming region of Johnson County, Wyomingmarker, where European immigrants are stealing the cattle of the rich ranch owners for food. Nathan Champion (Walken) – who knows Averill – is an enforcer for the landowners, and he kills a settler for suspected rustling and dissuades another from stealing a cow. At a meeting of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (a group of wealthy ranch owners), a dissipated Billy Irvine is revealed to be a member. Quite intoxicated, he leaves the meeting and goes upstairs to a billiard room, where he encounters Averill and tells him of the Stock Growers' "Death List." He admits that it is their intention to kill every man, and woman, whose name appears on the list. As Averill leaves, he exchanges bitter words (and punches) with the head of the Association, Frank Canton (Waterston), who is politically connected.

Ella Watson (Huppert), a bordello madam who accepts stolen cattle as payment for use of her prostitutes, is in love with Averill and Champion, and she helps teach the illiterate Champion how to read and write. She finds herself caught between the two as it's revealed that the Association has composed a list of more than one hundred settlers ("thieves and anarchists," as Canton calls them) – Ella included – who will be killed by men from Texasmarker who are hired by the Association. Averill gets a copy of the list from Captain Minardi (Terry O'Quinn) of the U.S. Army and later reads the names on the list to the settlers, who argue about what to do, one becoming enraged enough to shoot the mayor (Paul Koslo) in the ear. Cully (Richard Masur), a train conductor and friend of Averill's, sees the train containing Canton's posse and rides off to warn the settlers, but is murdered by the posse after stopping to sleep. Later, a group of men come to Ella's bordello and rape her. All but one are shot and killed by Averill. Champion, realizing that his landowner bosses seek to eliminate Ella, goes to Canton's camp and shoots the remaining rapist, after which he and Canton become enemies because of Champion's refusal to participate in the slaughter.

"Trapper" (Geoffrey Lewis) – one of Champion's friends – is walking away from the cabin when he encounters Canton and possibly Canton's entire posse. He is given one minute to warn Champion and their friend Nick Ray (Mickey Rourke) and then return to safety. However, as soon as Trapper emerges from the door he is shot, and the gun battle begins. Ella shoots one of the hired guns but doesn't stay, escaping on a horse. Champion and Nick Ray are killed.

Ella warns the settlers that Canton's men are near. They decide to fight back. Averill leads the attack on Canton's gang (after he and Ella discover the bodies of Nate and Nick Ray) and both sides suffer casualties (including a drunken Billy Irvine) before the U.S. Army arrives to stop the fighting. Later, John Bridges (Jeff Bridges) meets Ella and Averill at Ella's cabin as all three prepare to leave for good. They are ambushed by Canton and two others. Bridges and Ella are killed, as is Canton. Averill holds Ella in his arms, as the film fades out.

Then a title, "Newport, Rhode Island, 1903," with a yacht at sea in the background. A well-dressed, mustachioed Averill is revealed to be the yacht's owner, walking on the deck. He goes below, where an attractive lady (possibly one of two women who eyed Averill during the graduation 33 years earlier) is asleep. Averill looks at her, saying nothing. The woman awakens and asks Averill for a cigarette. Without a word, Averill leaves.



In 1971, Michael Cimino submitted the original script for Heaven's Gate, then called The Johnson County War, to United Artists executives; the project was shelved when it failed to attract big name talent. In 1978, after winning two Academy Awards (Best Director and Best Picture) for The Deer Hunter, Cimino convinced United Artists to resurrect the project with Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Walken as the leads. The film began shooting on April 16, 1979 in Glacier National Parkmarker, east of Kalispell, Montanamarker, with the majority of the town scenes filmed in the Two Medicine area, north of the village of East Glacier Park. The film had a projected December 14 release date, and a budget of $11.6 million.

The project promptly fell behind schedule. According to legend, by day six of filming it was already five days behind schedule. Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet (nearly 220 hours) of footage, costing approximately $200,000 per day. Despite going overbudget, Cimino was not financially penalized because he had a contract with United Artists to the effect that all money spent "to complete and deliver the picture in time for a Christmas 1979 release shall not be treated as overbudget expenditures." The film finished shooting in March 1980, having cost nearly $30 million.

As production staggered forward, United Artists seriously considered firing Cimino and replacing him with another director. Norman Jewison was reportedly asked if he would take over, but he rejected the job.

During postproduction, after months of delays, last minute changes, and cost overruns, Cimino delivered his version which ran 5 hours and 25 minutes (325 minutes) long; United Artists executives forced Cimino to edit the film to 3 hours and 39 minutes (219 minutes). Cimino pulled that version from release after its premiere in New York Citymarker on November 19, 1980. That cut of the film did run for one week at New York's Cinema I theater, however.


The premiere was by all accounts a disaster. During the intermission, the audience was so subdued that Cimino is said to have asked why no one was drinking the champagne. He was reportedly told, "Because they hate the movie, Michael," according to the book Final Cut, authored by one of the studio's executives, Steven Bach.

A subsequent review by New York Times critic Vincent Canby called Heaven's Gate "an unqualified disaster," comparing it to "a forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Canby went even further by stating that "It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect." Roger Ebert quipped in The Chicago Sun-Times: "The most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen Paint Your Wagon." In 2008, film critic Joe Queenan of The Guardian named Heaven's Gate as the worst movie ever made.

Heaven's Gate resurfaced six months later in a 2 hour and 29 minute (149 minute) version attempting to recoup some of its losses. But negative publicity had already damaged the film's reputation and this version quickly disappeared from theatres.

Some European film critics, however, were much less harsh to the film, some even calling it a "tainted masterpiece".

Awards and nominations

Won: Worst Director (Michael Cimino)
Nominated: Worst Picture
Nominated: Worst Screenplay
Nominated: Worst Musical Score
Nominated: Worst Actor (Kris Kristofferson)

Nominated: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Tambi Larsen, James L. Berkey)

Nominated: Palme d'Or


Impact on the U.S. film industry

The movie's unprecedented $40 million cost (equivalent to about $120 million as of 2006) and poor performance at the box office ($3,484,331 gross in the United States) generated more negative publicity than actual financial damage, causing Transamerica Corporation, United Artists' corporate owner, to become anxious over its own public image and withdraw from film production altogether.

Transamerica then sold United Artists to MGM, which effectively ended the existence of the studio. MGM would later revive the name "United Artists" as a subsidiary division. While the money loss due to Heaven's Gate was considerable, United Artists was still a thriving studio with a steady income provided by the James Bond, Pink Panther and Rocky franchises. Many have argued that United Artists was already struggling at the time with the box offices flops of Cruising and Foxes, both released earlier in 1980 (the former film was not even produced by UA).

The fracas had a wider effect on the American film industry at the time. During the 1970s, relatively young directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and William Friedkin were given unprecedentedly large budgets with very little studio control (New Hollywood). The studio largesse eventually led to the new paradigm of the high concept feature, epitomized by Jaws and Star Wars. But it also led to less successful films as Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977), and Cruising (1980), and culminating in Coppola's One from the Heart and Cimino's Heaven's Gate, among other money-losers. As the new high-concept paradigm of film making became more entrenched, studio control of budgets and productions became tighter, ending the free-wheeling excesses that begat Heaven's Gate.

The very poor box office performance of the film had an impact on Western films, which had a revival in the late 1960s. From this point on, very few Western films were released by major studios.

Accusations of animal rights abuse

Heaven's Gate was marred by accusations of animal rights abuse during production. One assertion was that live horses were bled from the neck without giving them pain-killers so that their blood could be collected and smeared upon the actors in a scene. The American Humane Association asserted that four horses were killed and many more injured during a battle scene. One of the horses was claimed to have been killed, and its rider (Ronnie Hawkins, who survived), were claimed to have been blown up by dynamite, the footage of which appears in the final cut.

The AHA was barred from monitoring the animal action on the set. According to the AHA, the owner of an abused horse filed a lawsuit against the producers, director, Partisan Productions, and the horse wrangler. The owner cited wrongful injury and breach of contract for willfully depriving her Arabian gelding of proper care. The suit cited "the severe physical and behavioral trauma and disfigurement" of the horse. The case was settled out of court.

There were accusations of actual cockfights, decapitated chickens, and a group of cows disemboweled to provide "fake intestines" for the actors. The outcry prompted the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to contractually authorize the AHA to monitor the use of all animals in all filmed media.

Heaven's Gate is listed on AHA's list of unacceptable films. The AHA protested the film by distributing an international press release detailing the assertions of animal cruelty and asking people to boycott it. AHA organized picket lines outside movie theaters in Hollywood while local humane societies did the same across the USA. Though Heaven's Gate was not the first film to have animals killed during its production, it is believed that the film was largely responsible for sparking the now common use of the "No animals were harmed..." disclaimer and more rigorous supervision of animal acts by the AHA, which had been inspecting film production since the 1940s.

Director's cut

Despite these setbacks, the movie was salvaged by an unlikely source. The Z Channel, a cable pay TV channel that at its peak in the mid-1980s served 100,000 of Los Angeles' most influential film professionals, was the only network showing uncut movies on television. After the failed release of the re-edited and shortened Heaven's Gate, Jerry Harvey, the channel's programmer, decided to play Cimino's 219 minute cut. The re-assembled movie received admiring reviews and coined the term "director's cut."

When MGM home video released the film on VHS in the 1980s, they released Cimino's 219 minute cut, using the tagline "Heaven's Gate… The Legendary Uncut Version." Subsequent releases on laserdisc and DVD have been the 219 minute cut. The 149 minute cut, released in 1981, has never been released on home video in the United States and is now very difficult to see or get access to. This cut of the film is not just shorter but differs in placement of scenes and selection of takes.

"The whole idea of a director's cut being something you could actually market came out of Jerry Harvey's rescue of Heaven's Gate," notes F.X. Feeney, a film critic who contributed heavily to Z Channel's programming guide. "It's an important measure, because home video, home viewing via pay TV, these things have really revolutionized how we perceive movies."

In October 2004, an uncut version of the film was again shown in selected art-house cinemas in the U.S. and Australia, along with Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, a documentary about Z Channel. In 2005, the original uncut version of Heaven's Gate was re-released in Parismarker. It was shown to a sold out audience at New York's Museum of Modern Artmarker with a live introduction by Isabelle Huppert.

In popular culture

  • The financial and on-set troubles of the film Waterworld, which starred Kevin Costner, somewhat mirrored those of Heaven's Gate, and led many critics and industry insiders to derisively label it "Kevin's Gate". Waterworld eventually broke even at the box-office.

  • In Albert Brooks's 1981 film Modern Romance, after foleying a scene on the film Brooks' character is editing, the sound engineers mention that, later, they will be working on "the short version" of Heaven's Gate.

  • Former UA executive Steven Bach wrote Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists chronicling his involvement in the film's production, which became a 2005 documentary.

See also


  • Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate by Steven Bach. William Morrow, 1985

External links

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